Green groups push new statewide parks funding plan

Gov. Nathan Deal. AJC file.

Gov. Nathan Deal is open to the idea of a constitutional amendment that would set aside about $40 million a year for more parks and greenspace across the state.

A coalition of environmental groups is pushing for the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act to land on state ballots in 2018. It would shift 75 percent of the existing sales tax on outdoor recreation equipment to a conservation fund to purchase new parkland and improve existing greenspace.

The measure, House Bill 332, didn’t gain much traction during this year’s legislative session, but supporters hope to win over some high-profile allies. Robert Ramsay of the Georgia Conservancy met with Deal chief of staff Chris Riley on Tuesday to pitch the idea.

“It’s not a red or blue issue,” Ramsay said. “This would give the state new advantages because you’d have the ability to plan long-term to acquire this land. This would be a real game-changer.”

The governor, who is approaching his final legislative session in office, said through a spokeswoman he is “receptive” to the idea.

It would need two-thirds support in the Legislature and approval by a majority of voters to get baked into Georgia’s law. Ramsay said the new funding would finance land acquisitions, new roads and improvements for existing parks and matching funds for regional and local greenspace initiatives.

The fund would be financed from existing taxes for equipment purchased for camping, hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports. It would not include tax dollars from any vehicles, engines or boats.

Conservationists pushed for dedicated state funding in 1998 when a “Heritage Fund” constitutional amendment lost by a 53-47 vote. That plan would have increased the state property deed transfer tax, an idea that drew opposition from the real estate industry and fiscal conservatives.

Two decades later, though, green advocates say the timing is right. They note voters in the conservative suburban cities of Johns Creek and Milton recently approved multi-million bond referendums to finance more parks. It’s also not being framed as a tax increase since it relies on existing funding.

“This is picking up steam,” said Ramsay. “We think Georgians think very favorably of this initiative.”

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